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US and Russia to discuss European security, but without Europeans

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US and Russia to discuss European security, but without Europeans

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BRUSSELS – European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles visited Ukrainian troops in the disputed Donbass region last Wednesday, looking through a fence at the positions of Russian-backed separatists.

“We are no longer in the Yalta era,” he said, when the great powers came together in 1945 to divide post-war Europe. “The European Union is Ukraine’s most reliable partner,” he insisted, and it “cannot be a spectator” while the United States, NATO and Russia discuss security European.

For some, Mr Borrell’s visit was a sign of Europe’s new interest in strategic autonomy and of its desire to be an important player in its own defense. For others, his visit was a risky posture and a demand for attention that only showed the emptiness of the European Union’s real weight in a world of hard power.

The inescapable fact is that when the United States and Russia sit down in Geneva on Monday to discuss Ukraine and European security, the Europeans will not be there. And when NATO sits down with Russia on Wednesday, the European Union as an institution will not be there – although 21 states are members of both groups.

Even though the main countries of the European Union, like France and Germany, have continued their own talks with Moscow and are full members of NATO, it is clearly embarrassing that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin considers NATO and the European Union as subservient to American wishes and decisions.

This annoys endless Europeans at “a very delicate moment in international affairs in Europe, unprecedented since the end of the Cold War,” said François Heisbourg, French defense analyst. “It’s our security, but we’re not here.”

Part of the annoyance is “the traditional European conundrum that too much American leadership is unpleasant and too little is also unpleasant,” he said. “But the least reassuring is that the Europeans are questioning the coherence” of President Biden after the failure of Afghanistan and his desire to pay strategic attention to China. And they fear Mr. Biden will be severely weakened after the midterm elections in November and that Donald J. Trump may take over the presidency in 2024.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has repeatedly vowed that no decision would be made about Europe without the Europeans, and no decision about Ukraine without the Ukrainians – who are also largely absent from the talks. Washington has worked to ensure that Mr. Borrell and other non-NATO European leaders are regularly briefed.

But there is still a tension between the overall vision of the United States, with China as a central challenge, and that of the Europeans, who have Russia as a central security challenge, said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

French President Emmanuel Macron has pushed Europe to do more in its own defense, especially with Mr. Trump denigrating NATO and with Mr. Biden looking to the Indo-Pacific. But Europeans remain divided on how to deal with Russia, their troublesome neighbor and the source of much of their gas and oil.

Members of Central and Eastern Europe trust only Washington and NATO to defend them and deter Russia, not Paris, Berlin or Brussels. And the severe economic sanctions threatened if Russia sank further into Ukraine would hurt the European economy far more than the United States, making further sanctions on Russian energy exports highly unlikely.

“In Washington, there is a lot of frustration that Europeans do not do much themselves while complaining about what the United States is doing,” Leonard said. “Biden wants to focus on the challenges of the 21st century and on China, and needs the Europeans to step up or shut up.”

A senior French diplomat admitted this last week. “Obviously, there are very different sensitivities when it comes to Russia within the EU and on the European continent,” he said.

But there is “a new European affirmation and a new willingness to take into account” that the world and the region are “more dangerous and volatile”, he said, adding: “We have to take care of ourselves”. The fact remains that it is far from producing a real strategic weight in the service of these ambitions.

Individual European countries have their own armies and foreign policies, and they have been reluctant to cede much responsibility, authority or funding to Mr Borrell and Brussels. Some see Mr Borrell as trying to be relevant in ways that Member States have not mandated.

For example, he recently sent a letter to EU foreign ministers insisting that “we must be at the table” of the US-Russian talks and that “our main objective should be to ensure the participation of the EU in the process “. He further suggested that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has 57 members, should be the venue for future talks, not NATO.

In the letter provided to the New York Times, he also said he was in favor of separate European proposals on security and had “engaged in a low-key direct conversation” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov. .

The letter was not well received by all foreign ministries, although Mr Borrell pledged “full coherence and coordination with NATO” in formulating European proposals “on conventional arms control and confidence and security measures “.

But there are also new uncertainties in important European states. Mr. Macron faces voters in April, and his re-election is far from assured. And if former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a respected interlocutor of Mr Putin – with a fluent Russian, a long experience in power and the German economy behind her – Olaf Scholz, his successor, is rather an unknown.

Mr Scholz is a Social Democrat, a party which has always favored Ostpolitik, the normalization of relations with the East, and which has also pushed Nord Stream 2, the controversial (and not yet certified) gas pipeline that goes directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and Poland.

Yet Mr Scholz is part of a coalition with the fiercely anti-Russian Greens, with a Green Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, and with the Free Democrats, who also openly criticize Russia.

While urging for more European defense capabilities, Scholz is also a strong supporter of NATO and the transatlantic alliance, said Ulrich Speck, affiliate analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. It is therefore unlikely that Scholz will break with any emerging NATO consensus.

In the new German governing coalition, “there is a balance of power behind the scenes, and that matters,” Speck said. “Scholz has to face this reality and an increasingly angry European Parliament with Russia, its hostility towards the EU and its interference in internal affairs.”

While Mr Borrell wants the European Union at the table, negotiations are now based on power, Mr Speck said. “So it doesn’t make sense at the moment to push Brussels into this,” he said. “It’s a fight they can’t win.”

Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States, sees the value of a broader negotiation with Russia, including a diplomatic role for Berlin. “Conflict prevention through deterrence and diplomacy is the proven recipe,” he wrote.

But Ischinger also recalled asking “a very senior Russian official in Moscow in 1993” how Russia would ease the fears of Eastern Europeans. The official replied, “What is wrong with our neighbors who live in fear of us? “

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Ischinger noted, “very little, if anything, has changed since.”

Valerie Hopkins contributed to reporting from Moscow, and Katrin bennhold from Berlin.

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